The NFL is full of high-caliber athletes, regardless of position played. But when stacked up against one another, which position or player reigns supreme?
For example, everyone knows that quarterback remains the “it” position, but is that where the majority of the NFL’s talent lies these days? As part of its 2017 NFL Preview magazine, Athlon Sports not only ranked the players at each position, it also put together a top 50 overall list.
Quarterbacks do lead the way with the most representatives among the top 50 with 11, including the No. 1 (Aaron Rodgers) and No. 2 (Tom Brady) players in the league. However, it could be argued that defense reigns supreme with the next most represented groups being defensive linemen (nine players) and defensive backs (seven). In fact, there are more linebackers and offensive linemen (six each) among the top 50 than there are wide receivers (five) or running backs (four).
So the guys under center may get all the glory when it comes to the headlines, big contracts and name recognition, but they are not the ones you should keep a close eye on this season if you want to watch the NFL’s best in action on the field.
Athlon’s player rankings are just one of the features that appear in the 2017 NFL Preview magazine.
NFL's Top 50 Players for 2017
1. Aaron Rodgers, QB, Green Bay
The passer with the top quarterback rating in NFL history (104.1) remained dominant. Led NFL with 40 touchdown passes and guided Packers to eight straight wins before NFC title game loss.
2. Tom Brady, QB, New England
A season that opened with a four-game Deflategate suspension couldn’t have ended any sweeter — with Super Bowl LI MVP honors. Shows no signs of slowing down as he reaches age 40.
3. Julio Jones, WR, Atlanta
All-time NFL leader in average career receiving yards per game (96.3) topped the league in that category once again in 2016. Became sixth player in league history with 300-plus receiving yards in a single game last season versus Carolina.
4. Khalil Mack, DE, Oakland
Won NFL Defensive Player of the Year honors despite a lack of pass-rushing support from teammates. Accounted for 11 of Oakland’s league-low 25 sacks.
5. Von Miller, OLB, Denver
Signing a massive contact extension in 2016 offseason didn’t create complacency. Finished with double-digit sacks (13.5) for fifth time in past six seasons.
6. Le’Veon Bell, RB, Pittsburgh
No running back is more patient in allowing holes to open before exploding through them. Fastest player to ever reach 3,000 rushing and 1,500 receiving yards — at 38 career games.
7. Eric Berry, S, Kansas City
Overcame cancer on road to becoming highest-paid safety in NFL history after signing six-year, $78 million contract in the offseason. Money well earned after another stellar 2016 campaign highlighted by scoring eight points individually in road win over Atlanta.
8. Luke Kuechly, ILB, Carolina
Nobody better when healthy, but concussions becoming a major concern for career longevity. Missed final six games after suffering latest head trauma against New Orleans.
9. Aaron Donald, DT, Los Angeles Rams
He remained the NFL’s most disruptive interior lineman in 2016. Will transition to 3-4 end under new Rams defensive coordinator Wade Phillips, but no change expected to penetrating style of play.
10. J.J. Watt, DE, Houston
Missed almost all of last season following back surgery. Should return to Defensive Player of the Year form — an award he has already won three times.
11. Tyron Smith, OT, Dallas
The best player on the NFL’s top offensive line. Allowed only two sacks in 13 games last season despite having to block for a rookie quarterback in Dak Prescott.
12. Ezekiel Elliott, RB, Dallas
Became fifth rookie since AFL-NFL merger in 1970 to win league’s rushing title with 1,631 yards. Receiving threat as well with 1,994 scrimmage yards, marking the third-highest total ever by a rookie.
13. A.J. Green, WR, Cincinnati
Because of a midseason hamstring injury, fell just 36 yards short of joining Randy Moss as only wide receivers to open NFL careers with six consecutive 1,000-yard showings. The 2016 season highlighted by Hail Mary catch for the ages versus Cleveland.
14. Matt Ryan, QB, Atlanta
An MVP season was ruined by Atlanta’s collapse in Super Bowl LI. However, the loss shouldn’t diminish a brilliant 2016 campaign highlighted by a career-high 38 touchdown passes and 117.1 quarterback rating.
15. Antonio Brown, WR, Pittsburgh
This textbook route-runner scored a lucrative contract extension after topping 100 catches for the fourth straight season. No wideout has ever caught more passes in a four-year span (481 for 6,315 yards since 2013).
16. Ben Roethlisberger, QB, Pittsburgh
Overcame an early season knee injury to lead Pittsburgh to eight straight wins and AFC title game berth. Now ranks in top 10 all-time for touchdown passes (301) and passing yards (46,814).
17. Rob Gronkowski, TE, New England
Hasn’t completed a 16-game season since 2011 because of injuries. But when healthy, there is no better tight end.
18. Odell Beckham Jr., WR, New York Giants
No NFL receiver possesses more ability to turn a quick slant into a touchdown. Could rank among all-time greats if able to play in more disciplined fashion.
19. Sean Lee, OLB, Dallas
Linchpin to the NFL’s top run defense in 2016. Compiled a career-high 145 tackles and remained healthy, which has proven biggest career challenge.
20. Russell Wilson, QB, Seattle
Carried Seattle’s offense while playing through a knee injury suffered in Week 3. Posted career highs in completions (353), attempts (546) and passing yards (4,219).
21. Patrick Peterson, CB, Arizona
Pity the cornerback aligned on the opposite side in Arizona’s defense. The Cardinals must find a quality No. 2 corner this offseason because teams won’t throw Peterson’s way unless absolutely necessary.
22. Drew Brees, QB, New Orleans
Keeps rolling even at age 38. Amassed highest yardage and touchdown totals (5,208 and 37, respectively) since 2013.
23. Richard Sherman, CB, Seattle
Has always talks a big game and continues to back up those words by essentially shutting down one side of the field in coverage. Also can trail elite NFL receivers on the outside or slot.
24. Geno Atkins, DT, Cincinnati
Led all of the NFL’s defensive tackles with nine sacks despite constant double-teaming. Pat Sims (1.5) was the only other Bengals DT with a sack in 2016.
25. Marcus Peters, CB, Kansas City
Despite only entering the NFL in 2015, nobody has more interceptions (14) or passes defensed (46) over the past two seasons combined. Also produced 45 tackles and three fumble recoveries in 2016.
26. Zack Martin, G, Dallas
First Cowboys rookie (non-kicker) in 45 years to make All-Pro team (in 2014) continues to play at elite level. Hasn’t missed a start since grade school.
27. David Johnson, RB, Arizona
First player in NFL history to post 100-plus yards from scrimmage in first 15 games of a season. Set franchise record in that category (2,118) and scored NFL-high 20 touchdowns.
28. Derek Carr, QB, Oakland
Value to the Raiders was further reinforced when Oakland collapsed following his season-ending leg injury in Week 15. Expected to sign a monster contract extension before start of 2017 campaign.
29. Landon Collins, S, New York Giants
Almost won the NFL’s Defensive Player of the Year Award after greatly improving his range following a shaky rookie season. Played in all but five of New York’s 1,110 defensive snaps.
30. Andrew Luck, QB, Indianapolis
The Colts have failed to make the playoffs in two straight seasons for the first time since 1997-98. But 8–8 records the past two years would be far worse if Luck weren’t there.
31. Joe Thomas, OT, Cleveland
Widely considered the top offensive lineman of his generation. Still hasn’t missed a single snap since being a 2007 first-round draft pick.
32. Earl Thomas, S, Seattle
Seahawks defense wasn’t the same after one of NFL’s most astute defenders suffered season-ending leg injury in early December. Eighteen interceptions since 2011 rank fifth among all NFL players in that span.
33. Justin Houston, OLB, Kansas City
Played in just five games last season because of knee problems. Talent still on display with 21 tackles and four sacks in those contests.
34. Ndamukong Suh, DT, Miami
It took a season, but the Dolphins finally found a defensive scheme — the “Wide-Nine” — that played to the same strengths Suh displayed in Detroit. Notched a career-high 72 tackles along with five sacks.
35. Travis Frederick, C, Dallas
Became NFL’s highest-paid center last August by signing a six-year, $56.4 million contract. Has not allowed a sack since 2014 season.
36. Jadeveon Clowney, DE, Houston
Became as dominant as Watt in the latter’s absence after being shifted from OLB to end. Finished with career highs in tackles (52), sacks (six) and quarterback hits (17) for NFL’s top-ranked defense.
37. Josh Norman, CB, Washington
A true shutdown cornerback whose surprising 2016 offseason release by Carolina hurt the Panthers and boosted Washington’s slumping secondary. The only downside: He must learn to better control on-field emotions to stop drawing penalties, fines and even NFL suspensions.
38. Matthew Stafford, QB, Detroit
Part of 2016 MVP conversation until finger injury triggered a late-season slump. No quarterback has ever passed for 30,000 yards in fewer games (109).
39. LeSean McCoy, RB, Buffalo
Rebounded from injury-plagued 2015 campaign to post highest per-carry average (5.4 yards) of eight-year NFL career. Seven 100-yard games highest total for a Bills RB since Willis McGahee in 2004.
40. Alex Mack, C, Atlanta
Key to Atlanta’s Super Bowl run after signing five-year, $45 million contract to leave Cleveland. Became the stabilizing O-line presence the Falcons had lacked since Todd McClure’s departure following 2012 season.
41. Jason Peters, OT, Philadelphia
Remains a shut-down left tackle even at age of 35. Seven of nine Pro Bowl appearances have come in Philadelphia, the second-highest total in Eagles history behind Chuck Bednarik (eight).
42. Cam Newton, QB, Carolina
Performance of 2015 MVP took noticeable dip last season, partially because of a shoulder injury and Carolina’s offensive line woes. Must improve career-low 52.9 completion percentage from 2016.
43. Mike Evans, WR, Tampa Bay
Notched career-highs in catches (96) and receiving yards (1,321) and tied career high in TDs (12) in his third NFL season despite consistent double-teaming. Such defensive attention should be alleviated to an extent by Tampa Bay’s signing of free agent DeSean Jackson.
44. Bobby Wagner, LB, Seattle
The first Seahawks player with five consecutive 100-tackle seasons (and counting) led NFL with career-high 167 stops in 2016. Also top tackler in franchise postseason history.
45. K.J. Wright, LB, Seattle
One of NFL’s most underrated players finally getting deserved praise. A career-high 126 tackles resulted in first Pro Bowl appearance.
46. Michael Bennett, DE, Seattle
How a talent like this went undrafted in 2009 remains mind-boggling. Signed to a three-year contract extension last December despite being 31 years old and missing five games in 2016 because of injuries.
47. Joey Bosa, DE, Los Angeles Chargers
The NFL’s Defensive Rookie of the Year — and with good reason. Registered 10.5 sacks and 41 tackles despite missing four games following a contract holdout and subsequent hamstring injury.
48. Jason Pierre-Paul, DE, New York Giants
Mounted one of the NFL’s greatest comebacks after mangling hand in a July 2015 fireworks accident. A 53-tackle, seven-sack season netted a four-year, $62 million offseason contract extension.
49. Travis Kelce, TE, Kansas City
For the first time since Tony Gonzalez’s departure, the Chiefs have an elite tight end. Led all TEs in receiving yards with 1,125 on 85 catches in 2016.
50. Kirk Cousins, QB, Washington
His future with the Redskins remains uncertain but not his production. Cousins finished third in the league in passing yards (4,917), eighth in completion percentage (67) and seventh in passer rating (97.2) last season.